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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

2004: A Last Look Back

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Before we get into Part Two of my look back at 2004, some unfinished business from last time. Like I said in the first place, the necrology was by no means complete and, inevitably, certain names were inadvertently left off the list, some of whom certainly should not have been. I overlooked actor Howard Keel, not out of disrespect but out of a lack of familiarity with his work. All I've seen him in is a handful of episodes of Dallas, which I did not watch by choice, and the pretty darn great 1962 sci-fi movie The Day of the Triffids. I certainly should, and will, familiarize myself with his best-known films, which include the classic 1954 musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

I also missed the boat by not acknowledging lyricist Fred Ebb. I'm not a huge fan of musical theatre but Ebb's shows were among the truly great ones. I mean, even I liked Chicago. And if you don't know all the words Fred Ebb wrote for "New York, New York", I don't think you can even consider yourself an American, can you? Bottom line is the man who wrote the lyric, "Life is a cabaret, old chum," deserved some recognition.

Also, when discussing great film composers, I was highly remiss in failing to recognize David Raksin. Raksin was responsible for the scores to two movies I absolutely adore, Otto Preminger's brilliant Laura and Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful. Considering how integral Raksin's music is to each of these films, I'm not sure how I left him out. Raksin should have been mentioned if he had done nothing but those two films, but his list of credits is as impressive as any composer's: Force of Evil, a great though too little known noir; Joseph H. Lewis' tough and gritty The Big Combo; the assassination thriller Suddenly with Frank Sinatra. David Raksin was one of the last of the old-guard Hollywood composers, a living link to the era of Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rozsa, and Alfred Newman and certainly deserving of being named in the company of those legendary composers.

Finally, considering this is a DVD website, I probably should have mentioned that Ronald Reagan also made a few movies, some of which are actually pretty good. His final performance in Don Siegel's version of The Killers was one of his best, but he was also memorable in Kings Row and, of course, Knute Rockne, All American. I've heard that John Patrick Shanley attempted to coax Reagan back to the screen, offering him the part that eventually went to Lloyd Bridges in Shanley's great, underrated 1990 fantasy Joe Versus the Volcano. I can understand why Reagan turned it down and Bridges is certainly terrific in the role but ever since I heard that story, it's become one of the most tantalizing "alternate-universe" movies I know.

At any rate, now that we've paid our respects, it's long past time for me to trot out that tired old critic's cliché, the top ten list. Not DVDs (we'll get to those in February when we hand out the 2004 Bitsy Awards) but movies. You know, those things they put on DVDs besides audio commentaries and storyboard comparisons. Say what you will about lists of this nature. Some of you probably think they're useful or, at the very least, interesting. Some of you probably think they're a complete waste of time, both yours and mine. But whatever you think of them, you have to admit it takes a fair amount of chutzpah to declare in writing that these ten films were your favorite. Nobody sees every movie that comes out in a given year, even the Eberts of the world. Personal tastes change, so that what you like right now might come back to haunt you a few years down the road. And most importantly, I find that the movies I love the most and return to year after year are not always the ones I had an immediate reaction to. Really great movies stay with you, burrowing under your skin and bouncing around and around in your head. Sometimes, you can't recognize a movie's brilliance until you've seen it more than once.

So if it's a bit arrogant to pick your ten favorite movies anyway, imagine how difficult it is to put together a list this year. When two of the biggest movies of the year are a documentary with the stated goal of removing the President of the United States from office and a blood-soaked epic depicting the death by torture of a lot of folks' one true lord and savior... well, a line's kinda been drawn in the sand here. But while some movies were extremely divisive, there were still plenty of pictures we could all come together around. For instance, we all agreed on the general suckiness of Surviving Christmas and chose not to go see it. Good for us!

At the beginning of 2004, I decided I was going to make an effort to see as many new movies as possible, whether I wanted to or not. Well, around the time I realized I was going to have to sit through Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights if I did that, I abandoned that course. Still, I tried very hard to see a wide range of movies this year and did fairly well. I considered a movie to be eligible for this list if it opened in Los Angeles during the calendar year of 2004. I don't know how many movies that is exactly, but it's a hell of a lot. I saw around a hundred of them and didn't come close to seeing all of them I wanted to see. But a lot of the movies I did see were amazingly good, as good as anything that's come out this decade. I certainly saw ten movies that I'm comfortable saying were my favorites of the year. Now I can't be sure, of course, that these movies will remain my favorites for the foreseeable future. Only time can answer that one. But these ten movies are the ones I suspect I'll be returning to in the years to come. Let's count 'em down, starting at number ten (we'll just pretend like you can't simply scroll down the page and see what they all are right now):

10 - The Saddest Music in the World

I've seen a few of director Guy Maddin's earlier movies and I'm familiar with his visual style, a fetishistic recreation of the look and feel of silent films. So I kind of knew what I was getting into with this... or at least, I thought I did. It's been a long time since I've seen a movie this delightfully, obsessively strange. Isabella Rossellini stars as a legless beer baroness in Winnipeg who announces a contest to discover which country has the saddest music. Mark McKinney (from the Kids in the Hall) plays the flashy Broadway producer representing America whose brother (played by Ross McMillan) is a veiled, sickly cellist representing Serbia. The Saddest Music in the World plays out like a dream... one of those particularly weird dreams that you wake up from wondering what freakish part of your subconscious that came from. It's not for everybody, that's for sure. But if you can tune in to Maddin's wavelength, I guarantee you'll see a movie unlike anything you've seen before.

9 - Maria Full of Grace

This film, the first from writer/director Joshua Marston, is one of those movies that you will get more out of the less you know going into it. Not because it depends on cheap tricks or plot twists for its success. Rather, Maria Full of Grace is a small, intimate and intense movie that can easily be overpraised. If you hear a lot of people raving about how wonderful this movie is, you're not likely to be as impressed. For that matter, a simple plot summary doesn't do it justice. Yes, it's about a restless young pregnant woman in Chile who takes a job as a drug mule, smuggling drugs into America in her stomach. And that may not fill you with the desire to see it. Ignore all that. Maria Full of Grace is a quiet, well-drawn portrait of a pretty extraordinary person. And that's really all you need to know.

8 - Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

I assume it's fairly unlikely that someone who does not enjoy heavy metal music in general (and Metallica in particular) will willingly watch this documentary. Too bad for you. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have made a hell of an entertaining movie here, whether you're into the rock and roll or not. What happens to a band when they get all the success they've ever wanted and more? What'll they do to hang on to what they've got? Some Kind of Monster is a raw look behind the scenes that most bands of this size would never let you see.

7 - Kill Bill, Vol. 2

First, what I didn't like. I didn't like the fact that The Bride's name, so self-consciously kept a secret in Vol. 1, turned out to be such a non-issue. I remain irritated that a movie that is essentially the ultimate exploitation flick is so long it had to be divided up. And I really didn't like how the end credits kept going and going and going, then starting up again from the beginning and going and going... it was like Quentin Tarantino was so in love with this movie he never wanted to stop making it. But despite all that, there was plenty to love about Vol. 2. If there was no single action set piece as impressive as the House of Blue Leaves slaughter in Vol. 1, there were plenty of smaller, subtler moments that rank with Tarantino's best work as a director. Michael Madsen and David Carradine both delivered performances that rank among their best work but both movies clearly belong to The Bride herself. Uma Thurman went through the ringer in these two pictures and her reward is knowing she's created one of the most indelible characters in recent memory.

6 - Million Dollar Baby

I was disappointed by Clint Eastwood's overpraised 2003 effort, Mystic River, so was doubly surprised by how much I enjoyed Million Dollar Baby. No flashy pyrotechnics or dazzling camera tricks on display here. This is nothing more than a good solid piece of Hollywood storytelling, old school craftsmanship at its best. The best news of all is that Eastwood the director has coaxed one of the best performances yet out of Eastwood the actor. It's a complex and interesting character, to be sure, but it's also one that Clint could probably do in his sleep by now. Fortunately for us, he didn't. Eastwood will probably continue to direct films for the foreseeable future but if he allowed Million Dollar Baby to be his swan song as an actor, he'd be going out on a very graceful note.

5 - Shaun of the Dead

In case you hadn't heard, zombies are back and bigger than ever. I've always been a bit perplexed by how much horror fans love their zombies. It seemed to me like there were only a handful of stories that could be told with the living dead and that George Romero had already told them all. Director Edgar Wright and star Simon Pegg have proven me wrong. Shaun of the Dead is a great British comedy, tweaking the things we all thought were stupid about zombies all along while still respecting them as menacing creatures. I can't say I found anything about the movie even remotely scary but it's to the cast and crew's credit that when things do turn serious, we aren't impatiently waiting for the next gag (so to speak). I'd heard a lot of hype about Shaun of the Dead in the months leading up to its release in the U.S. and was prepared to dislike it on principle but I just couldn't. Shaun of the Dead is charming, funny, and deserves to go into cult movie heavy rotation.

4 - Fahrenheit 9/11

OK, so maybe Michael Moore's diatribe against the Bush administration didn't change the world the way some of us thought it would. Even so, I'm surprised that so many of the critics who were falling over themselves to praise this movie last summer have distanced themselves from it now that the election is over. Well, I'll stand by it. Some people don't like Michael Moore just in general as a personality. I can kind of understand that. There are a lot of filmmakers I don't like as personalities. Doesn't mean I can't appreciate their stuff. Fahrenheit 9/11 is not without flaws. Some of the conclusions Moore draws are spurious at best and I was particularly irritated by the montage depicting idyllic Iraq before the bombs started dropping. Even so, there's a lot of very important stuff in this movie. Some of it's chilling, some of it's touching, all of it's entertaining and thought-provoking. You don't have to agree with every single thing Michael Moore says. Think for yourself and draw your own conclusions. That's what Moore did. And I promise you, the extreme right wing of this country wishes they had a filmmaker in their corner as funny and talented as Michael Moore. If they did... hell, I'd be first in line to see their movie.

3 - Spider-Man 2

More controversial than Fahrenheit 9/11, more spiritual than The Passion of the Christ… nah, just kidding. Sam Raimi's friendly neighborhood sequel is just about as good as a big superhero summer blockbuster can get. I hate when critics say, "It's that rare sequel that's better than the original!" At this point, I think we can all rattle off a dozen or more sequels that are better than the original, so can we please put that quote to bed? What is unusual about this sequel is how much it feels like a Sam Raimi movie and not just a big corporate movie-by-committee. Spider-Man 2 is fast-paced, exciting, funny and suspenseful. It takes liberties with the source material but the changes seem so organic and natural that only the hardest of hardcore comics geeks would begrudge them. If all big studio movies were this good, smaller movies wouldn't stand a chance.

2 - Sideways

But most big studio movies suck seven ways till Sunday and that's why a movie like Sideways is so great. Alexander Payne may be becoming one of my favorite filmmakers. I haven't disliked a single movie he's made so far and Sideways is his best yet. The cast is uniformly great. Thomas Haden Church gives one of those "who knew?" performances that come from out of nowhere, while Sandra Oh makes the most of the best and biggest role I've seen her in since the criminally underseen Last Night. Virginia Madsen finally gets a chance to show what she can do and it's about time. I've been a fan of hers for a long time but looking back on her filmography, it's difficult to say exactly why. Now we know. And as for Paul Giamatti... this guy's just great. He was unbelievably good in my favorite movie of 2003, American Splendor, and he's even better in this. Sideways is a smart, well-written, well-acted movie that restores a little bit of your faith in what this medium can do.

1 - Team America: World Police

And yet my favorite movie of the year is a bombastic action-musical starring a bunch of puppets. Perhaps I should justify this somehow. Perhaps not. All that really needs to be said is that Team America is wet-your-pants, choke-on-your-popcorn, call-911 funny on a lot of levels. As a parody of the Jerry Bruckheimer school of filmmaking, it's dead-on perfect. As a rude, crude spin on Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds, it's hysterical. But most importantly, Team America works as a savage, brilliant satire of... well, pretty much everything. South Park remains one of the only TV shows ever made that has actually gotten better the longer it's on the air and television might be the medium they're best suited for. After all, it doesn't take nearly as long to produce a half-hour TV show as it does to make a feature film with marionettes. But with Team America, Trey Parker and Matt Stone may well have made the most subversively important movie of the year. It's the only time this year I sat in the theatre and couldn't believe what I was seeing. Not puppets having sex but that somehow Trey and Matt had talked Paramount Pictures into funding one of the most honest and intelligent social satires in recent memory. America, fuck yeah, indeed.

So there you have it. Just bubbling underneath the top ten this year were a number of films that would comprise a very respectable top ten themselves. Since they're all well worth seeking out, here are 2004's runners-up:

The Bourne Supremacy
Control Room
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The Ladykillers
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring
Super Size Me
Tokyo Godfathers
Touching the Void
Vera Drake
The Woodsman

Finally... they can't all be gems. You pays yer money and you takes yer chances when you head to the movie house and when I watched the following eight movies, I crapped out. Are they the very worst movies of the year? Lord, I hope not. I'd like to think I'm smart enough to have avoided the very worst of the bunch. Wild horses with loaded guns and satchels full of whores and money couldn't drag me to see the likes of Taxi or Johnson Family Vacation. But like I said, there were plenty of movies this year that I wanted to see that I didn't make it to. And it wouldn't bother me half as much if it weren't for the fact that instead, I wasted my time and money on these eight cinematic putrescences.

Why eight instead of ten? Well, some time ago Esquire magazine listed their selections for the worst films of the year in their annual Dubious Achievements issue under the heading, "Now Playing at the Hell Plaza Octoplex". I always loved that. Just the idea that there was an eight-screen multiplex at some mall in Hell playing nothing but the worst Hollywood had to offer. As far as I can tell, they're not doing that anymore. But somebody should, so until I get a cease and desist, I'll do it. Like Esquire, I offer no explanations or analysis as to why these movies failed for me. If I get stuck reviewing them for The Bits, I'll go into detail. But unless that happens, I just want to forget these movies ever happened as quickly as possible.


Along Came Polly
Broken Lizard's Club Dread
The Brown Bunny
Exorcist: The Beginning
The Stepford Wives
The Village

Next time, DVDs. Swear to God.

Adam Jahnke

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